I wasn’t initially invited to my headmaster’s wedding. But, then, when a mutual acquaintance who was invited found out that I was not, he insisted on calling up the headmaster and telling him to invite me. He called him, in fact, while I was sitting there and then handed me the phone. “The headmaster has something he wants to say to you,” he said. I held the phone to my ear and said “Mwiriwe?” (Hello?) uncertainly. “I would like you to come to the wedding,” said the headmaster, in the same tone of voice children use when they’re being made to apologize. I told him I would be happy to go and so the plans were made.
Weddings are done in three parts in Rwanda: the dowry ceremony, the religious ceremony and the legal ceremony. In this case, the legal ceremony was done the day before the wedding so I only attended the dowry ceremony and the wedding mass.
I went to the dowry ceremony in the company of several other teachers, about fifteen of us, in fact, squeezed into a ten person van. Gained from long years of experience, I’m sure, Rwandans have a lot of experience of how to squeeze together in buses to fit absolutely as many people as possible. It involves sitting half-way on other people’s laps, squeezing children against windows and doors and putting your arm around the person sitting next to you to save the couple of inches your arm would take up if it was squeezed against your side. Also, if you’re really ambitious, you can have one or two people stand, leaning with their arms around the shoulders of the person seated in the row in front of them. Incidentally, this is one of the main (and few) times when I appreciate and make the most of my umuzungu status — I refuse to go more than four people to a bench and usually they don’t try to squeeze the umuzungu too much.
So, anyway, we drove about a half-hour to the bride’s parents’ house where the front yard was set up with three tents. AT the front of each tent was a folding table with a variety of Fantas and beers on it. The bride’s friends and relatives were all seated under one tent while the groom’s were seated under the opposite one and chairs were set up under the tent in the middle for the wedding party.
The way that the dowry ceremony works is that a representative of the bride’s family and a representative of the groom’s family engage in a ritualized negotiation aimed at persuading the reluctant father to relinquish his daughter to the groom. The groom’s representative cajoles the bride’s representative and offers gifts — in this instance, bottles of pricey, imported liquor. The bride’s representative, for his part, puts up three obstacles to the union. One of them was to say (falsely) that the bride couldn’t marry because she was only fifteen years old. The representative grabbed a bashful old woman from the second row and offered her as a bride instead. Of course, these obstacles and objections and offering other brides are merely symbolic — the bride will ultimately be given, of course.
Both of the representatives were very funny and entertaining as they bantered back and forth. The groom’s representative was a portly older man and we he crossed the yard to deliver the gifts he woudl sing and do a funny little dance that reminded me of Pappy O’Daniels dancing to “Man of Constant Sorrow” at the end of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? It was a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, the dowry ceremony was the high point of the day. It took an hour and a half of standing around before we got back in the squeeze bus to drive to Kigali (where the wedding mass was.) Then, the trip to the church was delayed because one of the two Land Rovers which the bridal party had rented rear-ended the other on the highway. No one was hurt but this was a pretty expensive accident and it cast a bit of a pall over the proceedings.
Finally, we got to the church, had the mass and the surprisingly dour looking bride and groom left the church. We drove then to the reception where, to be honest, I spent the whole time outside talking to a friend back home on the phone. Did I mention we’d left home at 8am that morning and they never fed us?!
The reception ended so we piled back into the squeeze bus. Two and a half hours on a dirt road, one detour on goat paths through people’s back yards and quick stop when the bottom of the bus scraped the road coming out of a particularly deep pothole, we were home — around 11:45 pm.
Despite my bitterness about the long day, inefficient planning and lack of food, it was good to observe a Rwandan wedding. The dowry ceremony was really cool! I wish we did them in the US! I know, I know … feminism. Come on, it’s not that demeaning to trade your daughter for a couple of bottles of Jack Daniels, is it? Nonetheless, “attend Rwandan wedding” is now checked of the list of important Rwandan cultural experiences, so there you go.